The Mental Life of Modernism

The Mental Life of Modernism

Why Poetry, Painting, and Music Changed at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

By Samuel Jay Keyser

An argument that Modernism is a cognitive phenomenon rather than a cultural one.





An argument that Modernism is a cognitive phenomenon rather than a cultural one.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, poetry, music, and painting all underwent a sea change. Poetry abandoned rhyme and meter; music ceased to be tonally centered; and painting no longer aimed at faithful representation. These artistic developments have been attributed to cultural factors ranging from the Industrial Revolution and the technical innovation of photography to Freudian psychoanalysis. In this book, Samuel Jay Keyser argues that the stylistic innovations of Western modernism reflect not a cultural shift but a cognitive one. Behind modernism is the same cognitive phenomenon that led to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century: the brain coming up against its natural limitations.

Keyser argues that the transformation in poetry, music, and painting (the so-called sister arts) is the result of the abandonment of a natural aesthetic based on a set of rules shared between artist and audience, and that this is virtually the same cognitive shift that occurred when scientists abandoned the mechanical philosophy of the Galilean revolution. The cultural explanations for Modernism may still be relevant, but they are epiphenomenal rather than causal. Artists felt that traditional forms of art had been exhausted, and they began to resort to private formats—Easter eggs with hidden and often inaccessible meaning. Keyser proposes that when artists discarded their natural rule-governed aesthetic, it marked a cognitive shift; general intelligence took over from hardwired proclivity. Artists used a different part of the brain to create, and audiences were forced to play catch up.


$29.95 T ISBN: 9780262043496 240 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 47 b&w illus.


  • In this brilliant book, the inimitable Jay Keyser—linguist, poet, musician, editor, educator—explains the greatest transformation in the history of Western art forms. Drawing on his lifelong erudition in cognitive science and the humanities, Keyser shows how the traditional sources of aesthetic pleasure—rhyme and meter in poetry, melody and rhythm in music, lifelike representation in painting—gave way to abstraction and puzzle-solving. This book sheds new light on individual works of art, on cultural history, and on the human mind. The Mental Life of Modernism should be required reading for humanists and scientists alike.

    Steven Pinker

    Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate